Honduras is a constitutional, multiparty republic. The country last held national and local elections in November 2017. Voters elected Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party as president for a four-year term beginning January 2018. International observers generally recognized the elections as free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included reports of arbitrary and unlawful killings; complaints of torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; killings of and threats to media members by criminal elements; criminalization of libel, although no cases were reported; widespread government corruption; and threats and violence against indigenous, Afro-descendent communities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses. Impunity existed in many cases, however, as evidenced by lengthy judicial processes, few convictions of perpetrators, and failures to prosecute intellectual authors of crimes.
Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, extortion, kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against human rights defenders, judicial authorities, lawyers, the business community, journalists, bloggers, women, and members of vulnerable populations.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In general the killings took place during law enforcement operations or were linked to other criminal activity by government agents. Civilian authorities investigated and arrested members of the security forces accused of human rights abuses. Impunity, however, remained a serious problem, with significant delays in some prosecutions and sources alleging corruption in judicial proceedings. The Violence Observatory of the Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) reported 16 deaths involving security forces during the first six months of the year. These included eight deaths involving the Honduran National Police (HNP) and eight involving the military.
On September 6, 2nd Lieutenant Chemis Xavier Paz Cruz, assigned to the 5th Battalion of the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP), was convicted of the 2016 murder of Elias Jireh Elver during a patrol in Tegucigalpa. Paz’s sentencing was pending at year’s end.
Following months of investigations into postelection violence, the HNP and the Public Ministry’s Technical Agency for Criminal Investigations (ATIC) concluded 22 investigations into alleged human rights violations by members of both the HNP and PMOP and passed the cases to the Public Ministry for possible prosecution. The Public Ministry launched 17 cases related to abuse of authority in August, noting that more cases would be forthcoming. On September 18, the Public Ministry announced the first case against an HNP officer for the death of a protester.
The government continued to investigate the 2016 killing of environmental and indigenous activist Berta Caceres. On March 2, the Public Ministry’s ATIC arrested a ninth suspect, Roberto David Castillo Mejia, the former president of the company building the Agua Zarca dam, which Caceres had long opposed. Throughout the year both the Caceres family private attorneys and the defense team complained the Public Ministry restricted access to evidence. Both legal parties asserted their right to review additional evidence that investigators had collected but not analyzed, including electronics such as laptops, cell phones, memory sticks, and tablets. On August 24, the three-judge tribunal ordered the Public Ministry to grant the prosecution and defense access to the requested evidence. The oral hearings for the first eight individuals accused of planning and executing the murder of Berta Caceres, scheduled to begin on September 17, were delayed due to legal motions filed by the Caceres family’s attorneys that called for removal of the three presiding judges. An appellate court denied the motion to dismiss the judges, and oral hearings began on October 20. On November 29, the court convicted seven of the eight defendants of murder and fully acquitted the eighth. The defendants were expected to appeal the verdict.
There continued to be reports of violence related to land conflicts and criminal activity in the Bajo Aguan region, but the overall level of violence in the area was far below its 2012 peak. On September 7, collaboration among the government’s Bajo Aguan Task Force, INTERPOL, and Mexican law enforcement authorities resulted in the arrest and extradition from Mexico to Honduras of Osvin Naun Caballero Santamaria. Caballero was a suspect in several crimes, including the 2016 killings of Jose Angel Flores and Silmer Dionisio George, two leaders of the Unified Peasant Movement of the Bajo Aguan (known as MUCA).
Organized criminal elements, including drug traffickers and local and transnational gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, committed killings, extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking, and intimidation of police, prosecutors, journalists, women, and human rights defenders. Major urban centers and drug trafficking routes experienced disproportionate rates of violence. The UNAH Violence Observatory reported that as of June, 82 individuals working in the transportation sector had been killed, including 49 taxi, bus, and motorcycle taxi drivers and 33 private company drivers.
On September 5, the HNP reported a national homicide rate of 39.6 per 100,000 inhabitants for the months of January to August. The UNAH Violence Observatory projected a final homicide rate of approximately 40 per 100,000 inhabitants through year’s end. Reports linked many of these homicides to organized crime and gangs.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The government continued to make significant advances in combatting kidnappings by criminals. In July the HNP rescued a nine-year-old child within 72 hours of his abduction in El Negrito, Yoro Department. The HNP reported 15 kidnappings through August, a 35 percent decrease from the same period in 2017. The HNP reported it rescued 11 of the 15 kidnap victims. The HNP recovered an additional person through negotiations, one victim remained captive, and two victims were killed while in captivity. The HNP estimated that it prevented more than 58.6 million lempiras ($2.44 million) in ransom payments to kidnappers between January and August.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, government officials received complaints and investigated alleged abuse by members of the security forces on the streets and in detention centers. The quasi-governmental National Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CONAPREV) reported two complaints of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and sometimes life threatening due to pervasive gang-related violence and the government’s failure to control criminal activity within the prisons. Prisoners suffered from overcrowding, insufficient access to food and water, violence, and alleged abuse by prison officials.
Physical Conditions: Prisoners suffered from severe overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and medical care, and, in some prisons, lack of adequate ventilation and lighting. The Ministry of Human Rights reported that, as of September 20, the total prison population was 20,506 in 27 prisons. According to the ministry, the system had designed capacity for approximately 10,600 inmates.
The National Prison Institute (INP) reported that as of September, 23 inmates had died in prison (16 from natural causes, four from violence, two from accidents, and one from suicide). The INP reported no deaths involving prison officials. CONAPREV registered 25 deaths through September and confirmed four inmates died from violence within the prison.
As of September the Ministry of Human Rights reported that the country’s three pretrial detention centers held 62 individuals. These three centers were on military installations and received some support services from the military, but the INP administered them. The government used pretrial detention centers to hold high-profile suspects and those in need of additional security. Pretrial detainees were often held with convicted prisoners.
There was pervasive gang-related violence, and the government failed to control criminal activity effectively within the prisons. Some prisons lacked sufficient security personnel. Many prisoners had access to weapons and other contraband, inmates attacked other inmates with impunity, escapes were frequent, and inmates and their associates outside prison threatened prison officials and their families. These conditions contributed to an unstable, dangerous environment in the penitentiary system. Media reported prison riots and violent confrontations between gang members in prisons throughout the year.
Through October 2018 the national prisons had approximately 1,160 female prisoners, 810 of whom the government detained at the National Women’s Social Adjustment penitentiary. Others were held in separate areas of men’s prisons. Children younger than age three could stay with their mothers in prison.
Authorities did not segregate those with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases from the general prison population; there was only limited support for persons with mental illnesses or disabilities. As of September officials reported that 151 prisoners were being treated for tuberculosis. Officials also stated that all penitentiary centers had an antiretroviral treatment program. CONAPREV reported that every prison had a functioning health clinic with at least one medical professional. Basic medical supplies and medicines, particularly antibiotics, were in short supply throughout the prison system. In most prisons only inmates who purchased bottled water or had water filters in their cells had access to potable water.
Administration: As of September the INP reported no formal complaints for mistreatment of detainees, although CONAPREV alleged 39 possible cases of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Authorities conducted no official investigations of mistreatment because they received no formal complaints. Media reports noted that family members often face long delays or are unable to visit detainees.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted prison visits by independent local and international human rights observers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. CONAPREV conducted seven visits to juvenile detention facilities as of the end of August. The judicial system was legally responsible for monitoring prison conditions and providing for the rights of prisoners.
Improvements: Through September the INP trained 435 technical, administrative, and security personnel working in 13 prisons on topics such as first aid and appropriate use of force.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that authorities at times failed to enforce these requirements effectively.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The HNP maintains internal security and reports to the Secretariat of Security. ATIC has legal authority to investigate 21 types of crimes and make arrests. The armed forces, which report to the Secretariat of Defense, are responsible for external security but also exercise some domestic security responsibilities. Some larger cities have independent police forces that supplement the HNP and report to municipal authorities. The PMOP reports to military authorities but conducts operations sanctioned by civilian security officials as well as by military leaders. As of September the PMOP had approximately 4,500 personnel organized into eight of 10 planned battalions and was present in all 18 departments. The National Interinstitutional Security Force (FUSINA) coordinates the overlapping responsibilities of the HNP, PMOP, National Intelligence Directorate, Public Ministry, and national court system. FUSINA reports to the National Security and Defense Council. The president chairs the council, which includes representatives of the Supreme Court, National Congress, Public Ministry, and Secretariats of Security and Defense.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces. The government took steps to investigate and punish abuses, but corruption and inefficiency resulted in impunity in many cases. The armed forces surrendered members accused of human rights violations to civilian authorities. The armed forces sometimes dishonorably discharged such individuals, even before a criminal trial. The Public Ministry, primarily through the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life, is responsible for investigating cases in which a government agent is allegedly responsible for killing a civilian. Prosecutors try such cases in civilian courts. Prosecutors and judges attached to FUSINA prosecute and hear cases related to FUSINA operations. A unit within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life manages some cases of homicides committed by members of the security forces and government officials. The human rights office of the joint staff of the armed forces investigates allegations of human rights abuses by members of the armed forces.
The human rights office of the joint staff of the armed forces reported that in 2017 more than 6,200 members of the armed forces, including the army, navy, air force, PMOP, and others, received training on human rights. Through June more than 5,800 members of the armed forces received human rights training from military and nongovernmental organization (NGO) instructors.
Corruption and impunity remained serious problems within the security forces. Some members of security forces allegedly committed crimes, including crimes linked to local and international criminal organizations. The Public Ministry’s ATIC investigated some criminal cases involving HNP officers.
As of November the Police Purge Commission reported that, since its creation in 2016, it had referred for removal or provisional suspension more than 5,600 police officers on various grounds including corruption, criminal activity, and poor performance.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law provides that police may make arrests only with a warrant, unless they make the arrest during the commission of a crime, there is strong suspicion that a person has committed a crime and might otherwise evade criminal prosecution, they catch a person in possession of evidence related to a crime, or a prosecutor has ordered the arrest. The law requires police to inform persons of the grounds for their arrest and bring detainees before a competent judicial authority within 24 hours. It stipulates that a prosecutor has 24 additional hours to decide if there is probable cause for indictment, whereupon a judge has 24 more hours to decide whether to issue a temporary detention order. Such an order may be effective for up to six days, after which the judge must hold a pretrial hearing to examine whether there is probable cause to continue pretrial detention. The law allows persons charged with some felonies to avail themselves of bail and gives prisoners a right of prompt access to family members. The law allows the release of other suspects pending formal charges, on the condition that they periodically report to authorities. The government generally respected these provisions. Persons suspected of any of 22 specific felonies must remain in custody, pending the conclusion of judicial proceedings against them. Some judges, however, ruled that such suspects may be released on the condition that they continue to report periodically to authorities. The law grants prisoners the right to prompt access to a lawyer of their choice and, if indigent, to government-provided counsel, although authorities did not always abide by these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: The Public Ministry reported 49 cases of illegal detention or arbitrary arrest as of October. As of September the National Human Rights Commission of Honduras (CONADEH) reported 16 cases of arbitrary arrest by the HNP, two by the DPI, and six by the armed forces.
Pretrial Detention: Judicial inefficiency, corruption, and insufficient resources delayed proceedings in the criminal justice system, and lengthy pretrial detention was a serious problem. For crimes with minimum sentences of six years’ imprisonment, the law authorizes pretrial detention of up to two years. The prosecution may request an additional six-month extension, but many detainees remained in pretrial detention much longer, including for more time than the maximum period of incarceration for their alleged crime. The law does not authorize pretrial detention for crimes with a maximum sentence of five years or less. The law mandates that authorities release detainees whose cases have not yet come to trial and whose time in pretrial detention already exceeds the maximum prison sentence for their alleged crime. Even so, many prisoners remained in custody after completing their full sentences, and sometimes even after an acquittal, because officials failed to process their releases expeditiously.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the justice system was poorly funded and staffed, inadequately equipped, often ineffective, and subject to intimidation, corruption, politicization, and patronage. Low salaries and a lack of internal controls rendered judicial officials susceptible to bribery. Powerful special interests, including organized criminal groups, exercised influence on the outcomes of some court proceedings.
On September 13, the Supreme Court accepted an appeal by the defense attorneys of six former members of the court, including its former president Jorge Rivera Aviles, to grant the accused freedom from pretrial detention after one month in jail. Charges against the six former court officials included several counts of misappropriation of funds and abuse of authority. The legal proceedings against the six were ongoing as of October.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary did not always enforce this right.
The law presumes an accused person is innocent. The accused has the right to an initial hearing before a judge, to ask for bail, consult with legal counsel in a timely manner, have a lawyer provided by the state if necessary, and request an appeal. Defendants may receive free assistance of an interpreter. The law permits defendants to confront witnesses against them and offer witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Credible observers noted problems in trial procedures such as a lack of admissible evidence, judicial corruption, widespread public distrust of the legal system, witness intimidation, and an ineffective witness protection program.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law establishes an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, including access to a court to seek damages for human rights violations. Litigants may sue a criminal defendant for damages if authorized by a criminal court. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to the Inter-American Human Rights System.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, with some restrictions, and the government generally respected this right. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the major news media.
Freedom of Expression: The law includes a provision to punish persons who directly, or through public media, incite discrimination, hate, contempt, repression, or violence against a person, group, or organization for reasons of gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity.
In September congress repealed Article 335-B of the law, which criminalized hate speech and language inciting terrorism, due to concern that this article could be used to target journalists and members of civil society for expressing views critical of the government. Media associations and NGOs praised the congressional action.
Violence and Harassment: There were continued reports of harassment and threats against journalists, media figures, and bloggers. NGO Peace Brigades International registered a significant increase in reports of harassment against journalists and social communicators since 2017. They registered 41 security incidents involving journalists and social commentators between January and August, nearly twice the number of complaints registered during the same period in 2017. Reports linked most of these instances of harassment and threats to organized criminal elements and gangs.
Government officials at all levels publicly denounced violence and threats of violence against media members and social communicators. UNAH’s Violence Observatory reported no killings of journalists and social communicators during the first six months of the year, as compared with two such killings in 2017. There were many reports of intimidation and threats against media members and their families, including from members of the security forces and organized crime. It was usually unclear whether violence and threats against journalists were linked to their work or were products of generalized violence.
Human rights defenders, including indigenous and environmental rights activists, political activists, labor activists, and representatives of civil society working to combat corruption, reported threats and acts of violence. Civil society organizations, including students, agricultural workers groups, and indigenous rights groups, criticized the government and its officials for allegedly criminalizing and stigmatizing social protest. Members of the Police Purge Commission, National Anticorruption Council (CNA), and Public Ministry’s anticorruption unit (UFECIC) all reported receiving threats. The Agroindustrial Worker’s Federation, a labor syndicate, reported two cases of threats against union leaders (see section 7.a.).
The government allocated a budget of nearly 25 million lempiras ($1.04 million) for the operation of its protection mechanism. By August it had 34 permanent and contract staff. The mechanism approved 219 protection cases, including 131 human rights defenders, 39 journalists, 30 social commentators, and 19 justice-sector workers. As of August 31, the mechanism had received 122 new requests for protection, of which 104 met legal requirements and were accepted. Of the 104 accepted cases, eight were closed during the year. The remaining 96 cases included 52 human rights defenders, 14 journalists, 21 social commentators, and 9 justice-sector workers. Some NGOs continued to express concern about weak implementation of the law and limited resources available to operate the government’s protection mechanism for human rights defenders. Civil society organizations continued to criticize the government’s failure to investigate threats against activists and journalists adequately.
The HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force investigated crimes against high-profile and particularly vulnerable victims, including judges, journalists, human rights activists, and members of the LGBTI community. As of November the task force had submitted 19 cases to the Public Ministry, arrested 42 persons, and obtained six convictions.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media members and NGOs stated the press self-censored due to fear of retaliation from organized crime or corrupt government officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Citizens, including public officials, may initiate criminal proceedings for libel and slander.
National Security: The Organization of American States (OAS) Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) continued to raise concerns regarding the law for the classification of public documents related to defense and national security (the Secrets Law). MACCIH called on the government either to amend the law or pass a new one. According to MACCIH representatives, the law prohibits authorities from fully investigating government contracts and funds, enabling government institutions to misuse an overly broad classification system under the guise of “national security” to hide potential illicit activity in such areas as the security tax fund, water authority, and social security administration. Civil society organizations supported MACCIH’s calls to reform the law.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some journalists and other members of civil society reported threats from members of organized crime. It was unclear how many of these threats were related to the victims’ professions or activism. Several anonymous social media sites, possibly linked to political parties, criticized activists, civil society organizations, and journalists who were critical of the government or opposition party policies.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but there were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2017 approximately 32 percent of the population used the internet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the right to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage. The law does not permit active members of the military or civilian security forces to vote. The constitution prohibits practicing clergy from running for office or participating in political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In December 2017 Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party was declared the winner in the November 26 elections. International observers generally agreed the elections were free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results. The OAS and EU both fielded observer teams for the elections and agreed that the margin of victory separating incumbent President Hernandez from challenger Salvador Nasralla was extremely close. The OAS mission found that this small margin, combined with numerous irregularities in vote processing, left it unable to state with certainty who won the presidential election. The EU mission agreed that there were serious irregularities in the process but concluded that safeguards built into the system, including posting of voting results forms on a public website, helped promote transparency. NGOs reported irregularities, including problems with voter rolls, buying and selling of electoral workers’ credentials, and lack of transparency in campaign financing.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Civil society and opposition parties accused officials of using government resources to attract voters.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women, however, suffered political violence, which ranged from harassment for voting against party lines to receiving death threats for their political participation.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but authorities did not implement the law effectively, and officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government took steps to address corruption at high levels in government agencies, including arresting and charging members of congress, judges, prosecutors, sitting and former senior officials, mayors and other local authorities, and police officers. Anticorruption efforts continued to lag and remained an area of concern, as well as the government’s ability to protect justice operators, such as prosecutors and judges.
Corruption: The Public Ministry’s anticorruption unit (UFECIC) made several announcements of case investigations, including against former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, spouse of former president Porfirio Lobo; the “fe de erratas” case against two members of congress accused of altering legislation; and the “Network of Congresspersons” case, in which five officials were accused of diverting public funds. UFECIC announced a fourth case in June, named “Pandora,” in which 38 individuals, including a former secretary of agriculture and several members of congress, were accused of fraud, abuse of authority, misuse of public funds, and other corruption-related crimes.
On February 22, the CNA presented five of its highest-profile cases to the public, citing several public administration and elected officials, including a Supreme Court judge, a congressman, and former first lady Bonilla de Lobo. Following the announcement the CNA reported harassment campaigns and threats.
MACCIH, the CNA, and civil society organizations continued to press for the passage of legislation to combat corruption, but most legislative efforts stalled in congress.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure law but did not always comply. The law mandates that the Supreme Auditing Tribunal monitor and verify disclosures. The tribunal published its reports on its website and cited the names of public officials who did not comply with disclosure law. The Public Ministry’s Campaign Financing Unit, created in June 2017, conducted audits of 397 candidates, focusing on those who won their bids for election. The unit reported that 76 percent of candidates for public office reported on all campaign expenditures and that four cases were referred to the Public Ministry for investigation.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Human rights organizations criticized government officials for lack of access and responsiveness.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Some civil society organizations criticized the government for failing to comply with, or inadequately complying with, rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and protection measures ordered by the court and the IACHR.
Government Human Rights Bodies: A semiautonomous commissioner for human rights served as an ombudsman and investigated complaints of human rights abuses. With offices throughout the country, the ombudsman received cases that otherwise may not have risen to national attention. An independent Ministry of Human Rights was established in January and, despite operational challenges from its recent inception, has served as an effective advocate for human rights within the government. The Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights handled cases involving charges of human rights abuses by government officials. In March the Public Ministry also created the Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators, and Justice Officials. The Human Rights Committee is in the congress. The Ministries of Security and Defense both have human rights offices that investigated alleged human rights abuses and coordinated human rights-related activities with the Ministry of Human Rights.